The body of this work consists of excepts from the writings of the early Hasidic Rabbis in the classical period (1780-1811)of the movement. This was the first work of such excerpts in English. Dan claims that the emphasis given to the later Hasidic writers in popular anthologies have given a distorted picture of the major literature of the movement. Instead of the highly popular narrative works Dan's anthology provides selections from the sermons that constitute a major form of Hasidic writing. He aims to minimalize Kabbalistic terminology and those writings containing large doses of homilectical formulation.
Dan prefaces the excerpts with a valuable survey essay on the origins of Hasidism and its subsequent historical development .
He notes that while many date the origin of the movement to the first public appearance of Rabbi Israel Ba'al Shem Tov(1736), and others place the founding date as 1760 when the Besht was succeeded by Rabbi Dov Baer(The Maggid of Mezherich), and still others choose 1772 when the death of the Maggid led to the beginning of many different Hasidic schools, his own preference is for 1780. He prefers this date because he believes that in Judaism 'ideas spread through the power of the written word more than by any other means' and that this is the date when major Hasidic writings were first published. The publication of 'Toledot Yaakov Yosef' a compilation of sayings by the Besht, was quickly followed by other books by Ya'akov Yosef, Dov Baer's 'Maggid Devarar Le'Yaakov' the 'Noam Elimech' and the 'Tanya'. Dan claims that by the early nineteeth century Hasidism already had a considerable literature from the different schools of 'Hasidism'.
Dan then goes on to talk about the importance of the homilectical sermon in the period 1780-1815. He too traces the effect of Kabbalistic literature on Hasidism. And he also discusses how the opposition to the Hasidic movement of the Mitnagdim related strongly to their fear of the return of destructive Shabbateanism. Nonetheless Dan points to the distinctive character of Hasidism vis- a- vis Kabbalah.
"Hasidism was not fundametally mystical in the usual sense of the word.. Hasidism was a mass movement, but the mystical stance is intensely individualistic and cannot easily be maintained in a formally structured group setting, at least not for long."
Dan traces how Lurianic Kabbalah the doctrine of the Sefirot did influence Hasidism, but how Hasidism was primarily a movement of revival and its characteristic doctrines not revolutionary. He points out how it placed new emphasis on ideas long present in Judaism, such as joy in prayer and the performance of Mitzvot, love for the whole people of Israel including the poor and the ignorant.
He points out that one of the central elements which came to feature in Hasidism, the devotion to the Tsaddik was very far from the Shabbatean ideas of Nathan of Gaza or the messianic conception of Lurianic Kabbalah. " Hasidism, it might be said, fragmented the superhuman messianic hero of Sabbatianism and distributed the pieces across time and space into every generation and communhity' The doctrine of the Tsaddik who was an intermediary and provided 'unusual spiritual endorsements' and blessings in this world 'for children, long life and sustenance' became central to the movement. The Tzaddik ideally reached the higher spiritual worlds ordinary people could not as it were attain for themselves. The intense relationship between Tsaddik and his followers also led to his taking upon himself their 'sinful thoughts' and ideally transforming them to 'good'. Dan does not say this, but the excessive dependance on the Tsaddik has for many been seen as a violation of the Jewish principle affirming the importance of the individual 's personal freedom in decision.
This introduction is truly an illuminating one, and the excerpts very often beautiful and inspirational.